Cuts disable healing hand of government

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 26, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Sharon Rogers' doctors say they can give her back her face, but the state of Maryland says they can't. The money isn't there any more. The budget cuts have been made. Sharon Rogers will have to understand.

The pain in her face started in the late 1980s, when she was a barmaid at Scully's, on Ostend Street in South Baltimore. She told the doctors she couldn't eat, couldn't swallow. The doctors said it sounded like a sore throat.

"It's not my throat, it's my mouth," she told them. The pain turned into agony. A dentist said it was her jaw alignment. She said sleep was now impossible. One doctor did a biopsy and announced that there was nothing wrong.

In May of '89, unable to eat or drink, her weight beginning to drop from 185 to its eventual low of 98 pounds, she went in for what she thought was a draining of her sinuses but turned into exploratory surgery.

The doctors found a rare form of cancer in her sinus area. A few weeks later, they opened her up again, and this time they removed much of her upper palate and her right cheekbone. They stopped just short of removing her right eye.

And that was only the beginning of the trauma. Over the next two years came 36 radiation treatments, two years of lying on hospital tables with this beam shooting into her sinuses, with Sharon Rogers strapped to a table and unable to move, and the overwhelming nausea coming on, and eventually the end of her ability to smell or to taste.

The radiation treatments were so intense, she says, that twice the inside of her mouth was burned, and twice more her mouth was infected.

"I walk into a hospital now," says Rogers, 40, "and my stomach turns. I can taste the chemicals in my mouth again."

But she seems to have survived. The doctors say the cancer is gone, and in the early part of this year they began new treatments: A tear duct was put into her eye. A mouthpiece was built to help her talk again.

It was a beginning of rebirth for her, but there was still much to do: Her right eye droops but cannot close, and the right side of her face has no cheekbone. It has a caved-in look. There are no normal passages in her nose, and there is still an opening where half of the roof of her mouth used to be.

The doctors were ready to work on these problems, but the state of Maryland suddenly said someone else would have to pay for it. On Oct. 15, State Health Secretary Nelson Sabatini sent out a letter saying that cuts in the Medical Assistance Program were unavoidable.

There is federal money, but the federal money is generally reserved for families, for women with children. The state money goes to single adults with no children. Sharon Rogers is single, ever since her husband left when her cancer treatments started.

"He couldn't handle me being on cancer," she says simply.

And now, the government is saying, she will have to live with half a face and be content that she is alive at all.

"I'm happy to be alive, but it's still a tremendous feeling of being left out," she says, speaking in slow, modulated tones.

You have to listen to her for a few moments to catch precisely what she is saying. There is no nasal passage left, nor much of the roof of her mouth, to help guide the sounds coming out of her.

"It's like they've put me on a garbage heap," she says, "like they're saying, 'Well, light rail's important, and a new stadium is important, and we can afford raises for the politicians, but we can't take care of someone like you. You're just an ordinary person.' "

The old job is long since gone. Now she baby-sits a little for a neighbor's children and goes out in public only with fears of confrontation with people too young to know better, or too insensitive.

"God bless children," she says. "I love 'em, but they're the ones who speak their mind. It's really hard to be in a movie theater and have children say something to you, but they do. And you sit there and brace yourself for whatever might come. There was a little girl, and she stood there and looked at me, and she said, 'Oh, my God, what happened to your face?'

"That really hurts, you know? Or people will say, 'Oh lord, what happened to you? Were you in a car accident?' Adults, yeah. It hurts. You try to learn to live with it, and you try not to let people know how you feel, but it still hurts."

She is a woman learning to live in the shadows, bundling close to relatives in South Baltimore but otherwise moving through the outside world only with trepidation. The Health Department says it's not their fault, it's just the budget cuts. The politicians say it's not their fault, it's just the tight economy.

And the people like Sharon Rogers, who once felt the healing hand of government, now face the end of those days. She is alive, yes. But she never imagined going through life with such loss of face, and such little hope of getting it back.

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